Costa Rica is a beautiful country with incredible scenery and it has a lot to offer tourists and families. It’s a great place to visit, but it’s definitely a different experience than other destinations that you might be used to visiting.
Here we’ve rounded up the top things to know before going to Costa Rica – things that I wish I had known before we went – so you can have the best experience possible when you visit this gorgeous country.
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About Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a beautiful country in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. It’s about the size of West Virginia or Denmark and has a population of around five million people. The official language is Spanish, but English is also spoken in some areas.
Costa Rica is known for being one of the top eco-tourist destinations in the world and is home to a large number of national parks and reserves. It’s also a popular destination for surfing, zip-lining and other adventure activities.
What to Know Before Going to Costa Rica
To enter Costa Rica, you will need a valid passport and proof on onward travel.
You will also need to provide an address where you will be staying while in the country. Customs officials will ask for this and may deny you entry if you can’t provide accommodation details.
Visas are not required for citizens of the United States, Canada, or most European countries for stays of 90 days or less.
Since Costa Rica is located near the equator, the climate is tropical and fairly consistent throughout the year. Temperatures remain relatively steady, hovering around 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit).
However, there are two main seasons: summer, also called the dry season, which is from December to April and winter, or the rainy season which is from May to November.
Locals will tell you there’s no best time to visit Costa Rica; both seasons have their own advantages.
If you’re planning on visiting during the wet season, be prepared for some rain, but it’s a good idea to take a poncho or light rain jacket anytime of year – you’re in the rain forest after all!
As well as consistent weather, being so close to the equator means that the sun rises and sets pretty much the same time all year round in Costa Rica.
This might be a bit of a surprise for some people, especially if you are coming from Canada, Europe or the United States, where the sun sets at different times throughout the year.
And while that definitely helps with bedtimes if you’re travelling with young kids, it’s something to keep in mind when planning your itinerary, activities or travelling within Costa Rica.
One of the other things to know before going to Costa Rica, is that driving after dark on some roads is not recommended and the sun sets around 6pm throughout the year, so keep this in mind when planning your itinerary within Costa Rica.
The official currency in Costa Rica is the colón, but U.S. dollars are also widely accepted.
Most prices are listed in colones, but if you pay with dollars, you’ll usually get your change in colones.
ATM machines are readily available and will allow you to withdraw either colones or dollars.
Credit cards are accepted in most places, but it’s always a good idea to have some cash on hand as well.
Tipping is not required in Costa Rica, but it is appreciated. A general rule of thumb is to tip around ten percent for good service.
Packing for Costa Rica is pretty easy as you don’t need to pack too many things.
Since the weather is tropical, you’ll want to pack light clothing that’s comfortable and breathable.
Depending on where you are visiting in Costa Rica, you could be in coastal areas or in the mountains, so be sure to pack a mix of lightweight clothing and your swimsuit, as well as a warmer layer for the mountains.
And don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses!
Here’s a Costa Rica Packing List to ensure you don’t forget anything before you go.
Unless you are staying at a resort the entire time you are in Costa Rica, proper footwear is a must.
Hiking boots or shoes are a good idea to bring, especially if you plan on doing any hiking or other activities in the rain forest.
Hiking sandals will work too, but ensure they have a closed toe. In fact, one of the things to know before going to Costa Rica is thartsome places will require you to wear closed-toe shoes, mainly to protect you from the wildlife on the ground, such as snakes.
Unfortunately, because of the tropical climate, there are bugs in Costa Rica.
Lots of them!
It’s a good idea to bring bug repellant, as well as lightweight long sleeve shirts and pants, as it will be hot but you will want some protection against bugs.
And for the bug bites that you do get, be sure to pack some after bite or itch relief cream.
It’s important to drink lots of water when travelling, especially in a tropical climate.
The heat and humidity can be draining, so make sure to stay hydrated.
Costa Rica is a very eco-friendly country and many places have banned single use plastics, so be sure to pack a reusable water bottle.
There are plenty of water taps around the tourist attractions and the tap water in tourist areas is safe to drink.
Costa Rican food is pretty simple, but tasty. Rice and beans are a staple and you’ll find them served with most meals.
The national dish is gallo pinto, which is a mix of rice and beans, and is usually served for breakfast with eggs.
Other popular dishes include casado (rice, beans, chicken or beef, salad and plantain), ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juice), and tamales (corn dough stuffed with meat or vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves).
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish, but many Costa Ricans speak English, especially in the tourist areas. So don’t worry if your Spanish isn’t perfect, you will still be able to get by.
However, it’s always appreciated when visitors at least try to speak some Spanish.
We always try to learn a few phrases before we travel somewhere, such as “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and basic numbers, and it really does make a difference.
The phrase “pura vida” is used a lot in Costa Rica and it basically means “pure life.”
It’s used as a greeting, as a response to how you’re doing and is used in general conversation.
It’s also the national motto of Costa Rica.
You will quickly learn what “pura vida” means and before long, you’ll be using it yourself!
There are SO many amazing things to do in Costa Rica that it can be hard to decide what to do.
And there’s something for everyone, whether you want to relax on the beach, go hiking or zip-lining through the jungle, take a dip in the hot springs, spot wildlife or hike around a volcano.
A few of our favourite activities were walking on the hanging bridges, experiencing the Monteverde Cloud Forest, hiking around the Arenal Volcano, seeing the monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park and visiting the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Here are some other family-friendly activities to do in Costa Rica.
Another one of the important things to know before going to Costa Rica is the cost.
Although it’s in Central America, Costa Rica is not as cheap as other Central American countries are. But it’s also not overly expensive.
Even with a general idea of prices before we went, it still surprised me to see how much the total amount of our Costa Rica trip was.
The cost for activities adds up very quickly, and accommodations and food are basically on par with the average in the US and Canada. (I realize that costs vary between places in the US and Canada, but using an average, the costs in Costa Rica were comparable).
Food was a touch cheaper, although not much, but if you ate at the local sodas, you could eat more reasonably than in restaurants.
What really surprised me though, was the cost of the activities, and how quickly they added up!
While children were sometimes free, many times you still had to pay a transportation cost for children.
So be sure to plan out which experiences and activities you want to do before you go, and prioritize what you want to see and which tour company you’d like to go with, so you can stay on budget.
Instead of doing tours at each of the cloud forests in Monteverde, choose one reserve that you would like to visit. Or if you’re interested in doing some of the adventure activities, choose one company to book with and look for activity packages. Instead of hiring a guide for each hike that you do, choose one place where you feel it would be most beneficial.
To help you plan your trip, here’s a post on our Costa Rica budget that goes over how much we spent. While everyone’s travel budge will be different, it will give you an idea of how much it would cost for 10 days in Costa Rica.
A trip to Costa Rica is definitely worth the money, but the cost is still something to keep in mind.
Costa Rica is home to an incredible amount of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, iguanas, snakes, and more.
It’s one of the best places in the world to see these animals in their natural habitat. But to the untrained eye, it may be difficult to spot some of them.
That’s why hiring a tour guide may be a good idea, as they will tell you about the animals and where best to look for them.
Hiring a guide is not necessarily for every park or hike you take, but at least try a guided tour once while you are in Costa Rica.
A night tour is also a good idea to do in Costa Rica, as many of the animals in the rainforest are nocturnal and the guides are excellent at helping you spot all kinds of things that you might not see on your own. We did the frog tour in Monteverde and highly recommend it!
One of the things to know before going to Costa Rica or planning your itinerary, is that even though it’s a small country, travelling between places can take a bit longer than you might think. For example, even though La Fortuna and Monteverde are fairly close to each other on the map, it can take over 3 hours to drive between the two places.
The best way to get around Costa Rica is by renting a car. This will give you the freedom to explore at your own pace and make stops along the way.
The roads are generally in good condition, and a 4×4 isn’t necessary if you are driving on the main highways.
But the roads can be a bit challenging in some places, especially if you are going to some places off the beaten path, or on gravel roads such as Monteverde. In that case, a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
However if you don’t want to rent a car, public buses and shared shuttles are also an option and are quite reasonably priced.
You can also hire private drivers, which is what we did, and I found the cost to be comparable to a shared shuttle.
With one adult and two kids (kids must pay for a seat on shuttles), hiring a private driver between cities was only a few dollars more than paying for a shared shuttle and we were able to leave when we wanted to, and make stops along the way as well.
Even in the busy tourist season, we were able to book a driver a day in advance. Just ask at your hotel; they can usually recommend a driver.
We also used mydaytrip.com to book our initial transfer from San Jose airport to La Fortuna. We’ve used them in other countries as well, and have always been impressed with the service.
Many people ask is Costa Rica safe? I found it to be a pretty safe country and we never felt unsafe at any time during our stay, however, we didn’t visit San Jose or Liberia and mostly stayed in smaller towns.
And as with any place you travel to, it’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and take precautions, especially in tourist areas.
Fun fact: Costa Rica hasn’t had an army since 1949.
We found everyone throughout Costa Rica to be very friendly and helpful. Whenever we needed help, whether it was directions, recommendations or anything else, people were always happy to assist us.
When we arrived in Costa Rica, we couldn’t find our pre-arranged driver in the line outside the terminal and another taxi driver, instead of trying to have us hire him, he loaned us his phone to contact our driver. And then he went up and down the line, found the driver waiting for us and brought him to meet us.
It above and beyond what he needed to do and made for a fantastic first impression of Costa Rica.
I hope this post has given you an idea of things to know before going to Costa Rica. It truly is an amazing country and if you decide to go, I’m sure you will have a fantastic time!
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or other suggestions.
And as always, feel free to contact us and let me know how I can help with any travel planning, suggestions or recommendations!
For more Costa Rica travel tips and inspiration, be sure to check out these posts:
- Top Things to Do in La Fortuna with Kids
- 13 Family-Friendly Things to Do in Monteverde, Costa Rica
- Manuel Antonio National Park: A Guide to Visiting with Kids
- Costa Rica Travel Budget: How Much Does 10 Days in Costa Rica Cost?
- 10 Days in Costa Rica: An Itinerary for Families
- Best Things to Do in Costa Rica with Kids: Epic Family Adventures
- Complete (and Printable!) Costa Rica Packing List